I don't celebrate Christmas per se. But that doesn't mean I haven't watched "It's a Wonderful Life," the mother of all Christmas movies, as many times as you have.
The first time came after an endless nightmare flight over the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains in a blizzard. When the apologetic pilot landed his plane — don't ask me how — and wished his shaken passengers a "merry Christmas," I dragged myself from the airport to a dingy downtown bus terminal where I caught the last departure by a hair for home, still another three hours away.
I had no headphones to tune out the sad silence on the bus, probably caused by an array of despairing and desperate scenarios that lead my fellow passengers to that pilgrimage at that hour — a Trailways bus creeping along an icy highway at midnight on Christmas Eve.
Finally home, drained and alone, I collapsed on the couch, where I came upon a dead-of-night showing of "It's a Wonderful Life."
Even before those quirky Bedford Falls townsfolk toasted their humble hero, George Bailey, as "the richest man in town" and sang "Auld Lang Syne;" even before Clarence Odbody, Angel Second Class, earned his wings for restoring George's will to live — I was a dewey-eyed mess.
Had the ugly events of my travels not lead to that moment, I probably would have passed over a Star Tribune commentary (http://bit.ly/RonMeador) about the film a few years later. I still have it. Each year around Christmas (and Hanukkah for me) I reread it. In years past I'd share it with my students.
Some of the young curmudgeons pooh-poohed the film as old-fashioned drivel "that my parents make us watch." But the commentary's author at first felt the same way, and I have a hunch even my students were secretly moved by his elegant description of the at once lovely and chilling lessons he finally learned from it.
My classes found much to talk about. We laughed at some of the film's archaic (to them) cartoonishness. But tears were shed, too.
If I were still teaching I'd especially make them read it this year.
The column was titled, "Like George Bailey, he's been to the bridge" (Dec. 19, 1996).
Even if you've seen the movie just once (which is unlikely), I'll bet you remember "the bridge."
That's where George Bailey almost takes his own life when the Scrooge-like Mr. Potter frames him for misappropriating $8,000 from the savings and loan Bailey runs. Hope gone and without help (he thinks), George decides (after Potter plants the seed) that he's "worth more dead than alive."
And then the bridge.
Star Tribune Editorial writer Ron Meador wrote about how he had ended up in the same place, emotionally. "It wasn't because of wanting to die, particularly … because of a death or divorce, or a lost love or upended career, although I've known all those dark passages and some others." He explained how, like George Bailey, he was "propelled to the bridge by a swirl of events that might have been manageable in other circumstances, but now combined to overwhelm me."
It's the "might have been manageable in other circumstances" that make this piece seem especially poignant now.
Meador went on to tell his readers: "It would have been embarrassing and painful to say these things in public if I did not know how common this experience is."
He said coming to know that enabled him to talk about his personal hardships with others, to be less afraid now and to realize that "… however miserable and worthless you may feel, you always have a hand to extend to another."
And when you do, "You realize that it's a pretty good life — even, from time to time, a wonderful life."
I'll never forget how, in spite of or because of (who can know?) my bleak homebound journey many Christmas Eves ago, I happened upon for the first of many times thereafter, the comfort and joy of "It's a Wonderful Life."
Dick Schwartz lives in Minneapolis.